Culture

Babe in the Woods: Journalism in the Age of Clickbait­­

(Photo: Jjayo/Dreamstime)
The gossipy Aziz Ansari story shows that journalists need to return to old-fashioned, well-sourced reporting.

The kerfuffle over the flimsy sexual allegations made by a photographer named “Grace” against comedian Aziz Ansari is not evidence that the #MeToo movement against sexual assault, abuse, and harassment has failed. Altering the risk–reward ratio for the men who commit such transgressions, especially against children, is a good thing, no matter the flaws of the movement behind such a cultural shift. Rather, the “Grace” story is evidence of an equally important problem in the Trump age: A world without media gatekeepers is a world where exposing a sensational story trumps all other considerations. The truth, of course, is important; it is not an all-purpose defense of publishing anything and everything.

There’s not much to the Grace story, if you haven’t already heard about it. “Grace,” a Brooklyn woman above the legal age of consent, went on a dinner date with the comedian. He brought her back to his apartment and attempted, clumsily, various sex acts with her. She did not enjoy these attempts, and it is unclear, from her side of the story, whether she effectively communicated her lack of pleasure. When all ended inconclusively, she went home in an Uber (a fitting end to a post-Millennial tale). She told a few friends, who, eventually, connected her to the website Babe. The website reported her allegations as “sexual assault.”

The story has received so much attention partly because, unlike the real #MeToo movement, it’s a light diversion. After all, #MeToo began when women wanted to stop a powerful Hollywood producer from groping, attacking, and raping women as the price of a getting a job. It aimed to prevent a doctor from molesting at least 88 children, and at prohibiting politicians from exploiting their staff. In contrast, Ansari is just a moment’s gossip.

In that, it is similar to other recent, and not-so-recent, high-profile cases of voyeurism, sometimes at the expense of a sexual partner’s reasonable expectation of privacy. This is life in the age when elevating page views — “clicks” and “traffic” — matters more than all other journalistic standards.

‐First, we heard a young man’s tale, in 2010, of a one-night stand with Christine O’Donnell, then a tea-party candidate, from Delaware, for the Senate. The man peddled his tale to the website Gawker. Like “Grace,” he remained anonymous.

‐Second, in 2011, a Breitbart website offshoot published photos of Anthony Weiner’s suggestive pictures of himself. The Weiner story itself had a public purpose: He was a congressman using his office to troll for Internet sexual partners. Yet the photos themselves demeaned the culture. The now-deceased Andrew Breitbart withheld the most graphic photo from publication, saying he showed it to doubtful reporters only to prove that he had it. Nevertheless, Breitbart advanced the story by going on the “Opie and Anthony” satellite-radio show, whose hosts, Opie Hughes and Anthony Cumia, had lost two previous gigs in mainstream radio, one because of an outrageous prank involving sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral less than a year after 9/11. On the show, Breitbart showed the proof to Hughes and Cumia, apparently displaying it not soberly, as unfortunate proof, but as an opportunity for cringe-worthy on-air fodder. The show released the photo into the public domain, helping to diminish human dignity.

‐Third, in 2012, Gawker aired the Hulk Hogan sex tape. The tape, of the wrestler engaged in a sex act with a friend’s wife, taped by that friend without Hogan’s consent, precipitated Gawker’s downfall. Hogan sued the website for invasion of privacy and won.

Gawker and Breitbart got lots of public attention for these editorial decisions. None of these lurid accounts would have been published by a mainstream publication with an interest in gathering and disseminating well-sourced, solidly reported news that amount to more than mere “clickbait.”

Consider, too: The mainstream media have done a terrific job in the thorny navigation of #MeToo. Reporters at the New York Times and the New Yorker spent months reporting the Harvey Weinstein case. And what outlets have not published is also important. The Washington Post foiled a sting attempt by James O’Keefe’s activist group Project Veritas to plant false stories of harassment by Roy Moore. Some websites have performed well, too: Axios did not fall for fake sex-harassment allegations against Senator Chuck Schumer.

Reputable news outlets have done what they are supposed to do. First, trace accusations to multiple sources. One person with a story that hasn’t warranted a criminal case might be telling the truth. “Grace” did not make up her encounter; Aziz has confirmed it and apologized, stating that he believes the encounter was consensual. In any case, the story is not news; it is one person’s imperfect perception. Second, rely not only on victim testimony but also on legal and corporate documents, as in the case of Weinstein and his multiple harassment settlements.

It’s not clear why ‘Grace’ should be granted reprieve from the public scrutiny that Ansari is now getting for his poor sexual decisions.

Third, be wary of granting anonymity to a source. “Grace,” like O’Donnell’s paramour, would not talk without such a cloak. Yet she has not reported sexual assault to the police. It is not clear, then, why she should be granted reprieve from the public scrutiny that Ansari is now getting for his poor sexual decisions. On all three counts, the Babe story fails: It depends entirely on a single anonymous person’s tale. As all reporters learn: Sometimes a story is really interesting. But that doesn’t make it a reportable story.

Finally, after doing all of this work, one would have to figure out: What is the public purpose? Has Anzari presented himself as an upholder of chivalrous values, or of college-style explicit consent before and during all sexual encounters? (Ironically, there may be a case here for a real, reported story, albeit a rather trivial one, as he penned a book called “Modern Romance.”) Is his behavior surprising for a single, semi-famous man of his age? “Grace” didn’t think so, as she said she told him, “You guys are all the same.” If so, though, why single out one person for public shame, instead of writing a general essay about the problem, without naming names? Finally, when there is a public purpose, exercise discretion, and know when to use your words, not your photos: We do not need to see pornographic proof of an elected official’s transgressions.

We do not need to see pornographic proof of an elected official’s transgressions.

Babe did not do this work where necessary. Instead, it went for the clicks. This isn’t much of a tale about men and women, then, but a tale even more relevant to the Trump era and the “fake news” era: The truth is not the only thing that matters. Judgment matters, too, no matter what the topic.

READ MORE:

The Claims Against Aziz Ansari Reveal the Defects of Modern Sexual Morality

The Feminist War on Common Sense

The #MeToo Movement Is Devolving Into Trial by Mob

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